The Big Story of ’21

What was the most important state news story in 2021?

You might nominate the ongoing fight over COVID restrictions and the waves of patients that are crushing the state’s ER’s and ICU’s. Then again, certainly, the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and verdict was the biggest national story that came out of Wisconsin this year, rivaled only by the horrible tragedy at the Waukesha holiday parade. Or you might think about the signing of a thoroughly Republican budget by a Democratic governor in a show of uneasy (and perhaps unwise) bipartisanship. You might consider the truly unwise wolf “hunt” of last February where “hunters” blew past kill quotas. You could suggest the Bucks’ NBA championship after a half century drought.

But my nominee is a second tier story that, while it did get its fair share of attention, probably wouldn’t shoot to number one on anybody else’s list of the big story of the year.

My nominee is the report of Gov. Tony Evers’ People’s Maps Commission. You might not view it as all that significant because those maps never had any chance of being adopted by the Republican Legislature. In fact, even some Democrats voted against them when Republicans brought them to a floor vote only for the purpose of demonstrating to the courts that they had no support. And in the end, even Evers didn’t bother to submit them to the state Supreme Court, though he did come up with a clever way to get the gist of the maps (if not the maps themselves) before the court.

The reason I see this as the biggest story of the year is because those maps should have the effect of shocking the state Democratic Party into a new reality. They cannot go on like this and expect to win. Simple as that.

For the last decade Democrats have been complaining that they don’t have a chance to win Legislative majorities because of the heavily gerrymandered maps drawn by Republicans in 2011, the year after they took control of both houses and the governor’s office. They’re mostly right. These are, demonstrably, maybe the most unfair maps in any state.

However, what my party wants to ignore is that Republicans were only in a position to rig the maps in their favor because they won elections in 2010 — under the old maps in which the Democrats had been able to secure majorities before then. So their problems run deeper than just the maps.

A lot of folks just assumed that maps drawn fairly, without looking to produce a partisan advantage for either side, would wind up with roughly the same number of seats for each party. But that’s not what happened. The commission produced three scenarios, and under the best one for Democrats, it still projected a 55-44 GOP advantage in the Assembly and a 17-16 advantage for them in the Senate. The two other scenarios were even worse. Republicans currently hold 61-38 and 21-12 majorities under their 2011 gerrymandered maps.

And it’s still worse news for Democrats in that the commission took into account partisan competitiveness. In other words, it actually tried to produce competitive districts. But that’s not a legal criteria. In fact, it’s a criteria that was specifically rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this month that it would hew as closely as possible to existing maps, meaning that, for all intents and purposes, it would lock in the Republican edge for another decade. Federal courts could still overrule them, but that seems unlikely since the high court has said they can’t take extreme partisan gerrymandering into account.

The upshot is that state Democrats will most likely face roughly the same built-in disadvantages for another ten years. And, even in the best case scenario, they’d still be looking at a 55-44 deficit in the Assembly, only somewhat better than the current 61-38 split.

So, as my mother likes to say, “what are you going to do?” Is the party just going to throw up its hands and accept another decade in the wilderness? Is it going to spend another ten years whining about how the Republicans have been mean to them? Or are they going to deal with the bad hand they’ve been dealt and find a way to win anyway?

The party’s strategy to date is to become the Party of Dane County. The idea is to play to the party’s liberal activist base and run up huge numbers in Madison and its environs. To a lesser extent, they try to do the same thing in Milwaukee, but Dane County has now much surpassed vote totals from Milwaukee. As a result, the Democrats have all but abandoned any hope of winning in rural, small town and suburban Wisconsin. It’s making itself in the image of its Dane County base: highly educated, affluent, attuned to issues of identity politics and quick to dismiss anyone with a contrary view of the world.

You can sometimes win statewide races this way because Dane is the fastest growing county in the state. So, in fact, Democrats have won 10 of the last 11 statewide races. (Ironically, the one they lost, Brian Hagedorn’s surprise Supreme Court win, is the very reason they stand little chance to get fairer maps out of the court. If the liberal candidate had beaten Hagedorn as expected, liberals would hold a 4-3 majority.)

But even that can be dicey. Evers won by running up huge numbers in Dane County, but his statewide margin was a tight 30,000 votes. Joe Biden’s edge was even slimmer at about 20,000.

My main point is that, even if the Party of Dane County strategy can sometimes work to elect statewide candidates, the Democrats cannot ever again win Legislative majorities that way. The fundamental problem is that Democrats — or more accurately the kind of voters that this Democratic Party tries to appeal to — live in dense urban neighborhoods while Republicans spread out. This just makes it spatially challenging, if not impossible, to draw competitive districts, even when that is the goal. That’s precisely what the Maps Commission exercise showed.

So, what needs to happen? Well, I’m afraid that while the way forward is pretty clear, the chances that my party can actually do what needs doing are pretty slim. That’s because the party is essentially being run by a group of elite consultants, donors, activists, interest groups and young operatives who live and work in deep blue echo chambers. They either simply can’t relate to the rural, small town and suburban voters they need to reach or they hold them in open contempt. “You’re a racist and I’m here to tell you why,” is not a good way to begin a persuasive conversation.

My 2021 political guru, David Shor.

I’m a believer in what the Democratic consultant and former Obama political aide David Shor calls “popularism.” Importantly, he’s saying that the party doesn’t necessarily need to change its positions (I’m actually less sanguine about that myself), but simply needs to use polling and focus groups to get a better understanding of which parts of its agenda are popular and which aren’t. Then, in a piece of highly sophisticated political maneuvering, they should, ya know, talk about the popular stuff and not talk about the stuff people don’t like.

That simple advice is virtually impossible for liberal activists to follow. That’s because much of the Democratic coalition is made up of interest groups who are evangelical about their specific cause — and only becoming more so. So, just for example, try telling transgender activists that they should trim their sails in the interest of electing more Democrats, who, in the long run, will be better for transgender rights. Just try that argument out. I’ll be back here with a nice cocktail to ease your nerves when you return.

And there’s your problem, folks. Even though about two-thirds of Democrats are practical and moderate (most notably driven by people of color, by the way) and even though only about 8% of Americans are hard-left true believers, it’s the hard-left that shapes the public image of the party. Getting them to cool it in the interest of winning more elections is just not in the cards. They believe you change the world through revolution by pushing the cultural envelope. Whereas, people like me believe you improve things steadily and incrementally by winning elections, and you win elections by appealing to the broadest base of voters that you can.

All of which brings me to…. Joe Manchin. Manchin is the textbook case of the challenge for Democrats. The West Virginia senator is a good deal more conservative than I am, but I appreciate his very existence. He wins in a state that Donald Trump won by 39 points. Without him, not only is there no chance of any part of Building Back Better passing, but there would have been no $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and no child tax credit. There also almost certainly would have been no infrastructure bill. I know. Mitch McConnell voted for it, but do you really think that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have allowed that to come to a vote to make a Democratic president look good?

And how is the Democratic Party thanking him? By insulting him for not going along with every item on the activist agenda wish list. I was especially disappointed in Joe Biden’s White House for the awful statement that came from his press secretary Jen Psaki, basically calling Manchin a liar. That’s going to help build bridges and keep the guy in the party… how, exactly?

But Manchin is the very prototype of the kind of Democrat the party needs to seek out, recruit, nurture, support and — not just tolerate — but make a central part of the party. Without candidates like Joe Manchin, Democrats have no chance of maintaining majorities in Congress and certainly not in the Wisconsin Legislature.

While I’m not especially hopeful that my Democratic Party can do what it clearly needs to do to win more elections, they’ve got to try. They’ve got to try because they are the last, best hope of preserving liberal democracy in America. The Republicans are just gone. They’ve essentially become the Party of Trump, the Fascist Party of America.

To my Dane County liberal activist friends (of which I still have one or two, even after a year of writing stuff like this) I have a simple plea: If you are really concerned about making progress, then step back, jettison the horrible campus-woke rhetoric, take seriously the concerns of moderate, reasonable people outside of Madison and trim your righteous sails.

If you do that you may just find Democrats in the majority, and progress being made, despite the maps.

Welcome to the 314th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “The Big Story of ’21

  1. Some of us are keeping up the good fight Dave. Not every activist is as nihilistic as the ones popping up on the isthmus. The Dane County Party has new executive board which I am pleased to serve on and I’m going to do my best.

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  2. The point about polling and focus groups needs more attention. Republicans have long done a better job of marketing their candidates, because they make a point to market their candidates. I love fast food commercials. And I don’t touch fast food. There have been amusing comparisons between what the ads look like and what the actual hamburger looks like. And yet, based on how prevalent they are, these commercials must be working. Obviously somebody is making dietary decisions based on corporate ads and not those helpful articles telling you to eat kale.

    As a result of years of this disparity in approaches, many people are quite happy and confident to describe themselves as conservatives. It sounds safe enough, mainstream, yet provides cover for the atrocities of Trumpists. Liberalism, however, outside of a few editorial pages, has effectively been painted by the conservative marketing machine as socialism. Tax and spend. I can spout the conservative view better than my own, but let me try:

    Liberalism is by its very nature centrist. We’re the people who want the free market to work better, for everyone, and understand that specific interventions in the market can at least mitigate problematic situations. We want to win elections, but put fair play above winning. Because liberalism grew out of the Enlightenment, liberals tend to value rationality, being fact-based and oriented to addressing problems. That’s a tough program to market. But not as tough as marketing storming the Capitol and overthrowing elections!

    Recently a proud conservative I know, who disowns Trump, made a snide remark about Obama. Really? What did Obama ever do to you? Clinton and Obama were terrific presidents. Who knew? Am I allowed to even say those words out loud? Great presidents? Aren’t they all corrupt, self-serving, power hungry, etc? No, actually. Some followed the rules of democracy and governed with skill and insight, in a messy world. As much as I dislike talking points, sometimes a simplified, packaged, targeted message would help a lot. Kale, it’s tasty!

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